Monday, August 15, 2022

PA Law Found To Apply to NJ Accident Under Choice of Law Analysis; Punitive Damages Claim in DUI Case Allowed to Proceed

In the case of Hutchinson v. Millet, No. 22-CV-1166 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Aug. 8, 2022 Nealon, J.), the court addressed choice of law questions and punitive damages issues in response to Preliminary Objections raised in a motor vehicle accident case.

According to the Opinion, this matter involved a fatal motor vehicle accident that occurred in New Jersey. 

The estate of the Lackawanna County decedent, who was killed in a New Jersey automobile accident while a passenger in a vehicle operated by a Lackawanna County resident and owned by the Defendant driver’s Lackawanna County employer, commenced this lawsuit against the deceased Defendant driver’s estate and his employer seeking to recover compensatory and punitive damages based upon alleged negligent and reckless conduct of the Defendant driver in allegedly causing the fatal collision while allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol, cocaine, and prescribed medications.

The deceased driver’s estate filed Preliminary Objections seeking to dismiss the punitive damages claims on the grounds that New Jersey law prohibits the recovery of punitive damages from a deceased tortfeasor’s estate, and also restricts an employer’s vicarious liability for punitive damages to those instances where the employer specifically authorized, ratified, or participated in the employee’s reckless conduct.

The Defendant driver’s estate alternatively argued that, even if Pennsylvania law applied, the punitive damages claims should be dismissed since the deceased Defendant driver was allegedly chargeable with nothing more than ordinary or gross negligence and such claims were insufficient to support a punitive damages claim.

In response, the Plaintiff’s estate asserted that Pennsylvania law governed and that Pennsylvania law allowed for the punitive damages claim.

Judge Terrence R. Nealon
Lackawanna County

After applying a detailed choice of law analysis, Judge Nealon ruled that Pennsylvania law controls the punitive damages issues raised by the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections.

Judge Nealon went on to note that, under Pennsylvania law, the estate of a tort victim may recover punitive damages from a deceased tortfeasor’s estate for causing an accident while operating a vehicle allegedly while impaired with alcohol or drugs. The court also noted that the employer of an allegedly intoxicated or impaired driver may be found vicariously liable for punitive damages even if that employer did not direct or ratify that reckless conduct.

As such, the court overruled the Defendant’s Preliminary Objections in the nature of a demurrer that was asserted against the punitive damages claims.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

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